September 3, 2012

CTfastrak presents development opportunities

Photo / Pablo Robles
Photo / Pablo Robles
The Town of Newington wants to redevelop the former National Welding site to take advantage of the anticipated increase in traffic when CTfastrak comes online.
Photo / Pablo Robles
New Britain wants to redevelop its police station on Columbus Boulevard to cater to the CTfastrak traffic once the cops move out by Dec. 1.

With buses soon rolling by every three minutes, New Britain is developing plans for its police station on Columbus Boulevard beyond law and order.

After the police move into new digs downtown by Dec. 1, the city officials want a developer to create commercial, office or housing space in the former station, taking advantage of anticipated increased foot traffic.

Situated less than one block from CTfastrak — formerly known as the New Britain-Hartford Busway — the New Britain Police Station is one of a multitude of sites local and state officials believe will blossom once the new public transportation system comes online.

New Britain officials are writing a request for proposal to market and sell the station for development.

“We know there will be economic benefits in the area immediately surrounding CTfastrak,” said Phil Sherwood, deputy chief of staff for New Britain Mayor Tim O'Brien. “The potential is significant for private development.”

Transit-oriented development is a hallmark of the Connecticut Department of Transportation's transit buildout, which includes the busway, enhanced rail service, ridesharing, and other commuter services.

DOT Commissioner James Redeker envisions development popping up along the various routes of a robust transportation system, changing the ways Connecticut residents live and move around the state. In his vision, surface parking lots serving motorists will be replaced by mixed-use complexes catering to commuters' 24-hour living and retail needs — as opposed to the 9-to-5 crowd.

“There's a lot of opportunities for downtown Hartford,” Redeker said. “It allows it to become something that is available at all times of day.”

While these plans sound exciting, the success is still up for debate. Randal O'Toole, public policy specialist and senior fellow for Washington, D.C. think tank Cato Institute, said the busway won't add enough speed or mobility to bring a significant amount of motorists off highways, hindering development.

“The idea that you have to spend $600 million to create a roadway exclusively for buses is basically a way to pay contractors to create political capital,” O'Toole said.

CTfastrak is the latest component in a much larger scheme to bring more people onto public transit in Connecticut. The nine-mile, $567-million busway started construction earlier this year and will open for passengers in late 2014. Of the 11 stations, four will be in Hartford, three in New Britain, and two each in West Hartford and Newington.

Newington is in the process of bringing on private firms to help develop the four-acre site at the corner of Fenn Road and Cedar Street that was once home to National Welding. The site is near the Cedar Street busway station.

Andrew Brecher, Newington economic development director, told the Town Council in its August meeting that Newington will seek a state grant to demolish the National Welding building and remediate the property so a developer can be brought in to take advantage of the anticipated foot traffic. The town has appropriated $450,000 to build an access road onto the property.

The town has a request for proposals for design plans out to more than 40 firms throughout the country, soliciting their ideas for the site. The town doesn't like housing for the property, Brecher said, and anticipates mix-use development with parking, commercial, research, and medical use.

“Since the National Welding site is immediately next to the busway station, it is a very hot property,” Brecher said. “The person with the right vision is going to see a lot of potential.”

With CTfastrak, DOT sees a new generation of passengers taking over the transit system in the near future, creating this new foot traffic. Gone will be the generation that prefers to drive, replaced by younger people who prefer to bike, walk and use buses or rail instead of cars.

“You have a bunch of 50-year-old guys building a system for a bunch of 50-year-old guys, when we really should be building for the next generation,” said Mike Sanders, DOT transit administrator.

DOT predicts CTfastrak will service 16,000 riders daily by 2030, doubling the number of riders using bus service along that corridor by adding new passengers who wouldn't otherwise use the service.

O'Toole from the Cato Institute said even if CTfastrak successfully achieves those numbers, the passenger counts won't warrant significant development or accomplish the plan's main goal — reducing congestion on the region's roads, especially Interstate 84.

“Bus rapid transit is a good idea, but you don't need an exclusive busway for it,” O'Toole said. “It will have almost no effect on congestion.”

According to DOT's environmental impact study, CTfastrak will reduce vehicle miles traveled on I-84 by 5.2 percent.

The most successful bus rapid transit systems in the country are in places such as Denver and Kansas City, Mo., where the busways are open to single-passenger vehicles. The best option for Connecticut would be to allow other vehicles to travel CTfastrak by using a toll, O'Toole said.

CTfastrak anticipates the ride from New Britain to Hartford will take 20 minutes, slightly longer than it takes by car via I-84.

Since the busway isn't any faster than cars and doesn't increase mobility for people in the area, development around the busway is unlikely, O'Toole said.

“Development only works if the transportation facility creates new mobility that wasn't there before,” O'Toole said.

Despite any perceived flaws, Redeker said CTfastrak must be viewed as part of a larger system. As Connecticut adds more public transportation such as the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield rail line, the state will need systems such as CTfastrak to move people around without cars.

“Times are different right now, but I think solutions will be different,” Redeker said.

This new future is beginning in places such as National Welding in Newington and the New Britain Police Department, and local officials envision development beyond what public-private partnerships might spring up.

New Britain anticipates retail stores within 50-80 yards of the busway will spring up once the buses start running and bringing foot traffic.

“We shouldn't be surprised when we see those fill up,” Sherwood said.

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